The Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice was fortunate enough to welcome visiting scholar Dr Peter Stoett for a series of one to one meetings, reading groups and a masterclass on key themes surrounding plastic pollution, eco-violence, environmental crime and justice. Peter is Director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre at Concordia University in Montreal. He has carried out research across the globe, with a rich body of published work looking at primary international relations and law, environmental politics and human rights. Peter’s visit provided a fascinating insight into a number of the peripheral issues that surround, and are often further exacerbated by global climate change. Collectively we explored the resurgence of environmental or ‘eco’ violence, the governance of environmental crime and whether neglectful contribution to climate change should fall under this remit, and finally the links between plastic pollution and climate justice – which will be the focus of this blog.Discussions on the matter centred on Peter’s paper ‘Marine Obligations Ergo Omnes: On Reducing the Plastic Heritage of Humankind’, in which he details the alarming extent to which harmful plastic has become pervasive within our oceans and fresh water sources alike. The ubiquity of this substance, on account of its inability to biodegrade, has led to serious implications for oceans, lakes, rivers and the biodiversity that constitutes them. The scene is originally set by discussing the changing discourse around the topic. Whilst initially larger, visible pollution in the form of discarded fishing equipment, shopping bags and ring pulls, which were often being consumed by assorted wildlife were central to the issue – focus has now shifted to micro plastics, those smaller than 1mm. These emanate from the breakdown of larger plastics, and from their inclusion in a number of household goods and cleaners, such as shower gels and cosmetics. Recent scientific evidence has proved unequivocally that “exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of micro plastic polystyrene particles (90 micrometres) inhibits hatching, decreases growth rates, and alters feeding preferences and innate behaviours of European perch larvae” (Lonnsted & Eklov, 2016, pg.1213). As such the need to mitigate the impacts of plastics on our natural environment is now critically important.
He goes on to tie the plastic problem to climate change, firstly through the carbon intensity of the plastic industry (which makes a 10% contribution to ‘global warming potential’) and also through its deleterious impact on the ability of those who consume it to ingest organic carbon based matter as usual – impacting the carbon cycling function of our oceans. The paper explores the various institutions to whom the task of resolving this issue has fallen upon – from transnational NGO ‘The Global Oceans Commission’ to The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the United Nations Environment Programme, however he raises concerns over a lack of concrete claims of responsibility and appropriate binding targets to ensure the drastic reduction of pollution. Finally a series of recommendations are made on how the aquatic plastic problem can be addressed moving forwards. The use of citizen science is cited as a useful tool, as well as the necessity of developing clear progress indicators, increased regulation of aquaculture and advocacy of increased funding to be directed in exploring the links between climate change and plastic pollution.Maybe unsurprisingly, the aspect of this paper that most caught my attention was the startling parallels between the aquatic plastic problem and global climate change, particularly the inherent injustices that reside at their core. Both of these phenomena pose a greater threat to future generations than current, with Asia now creating more pollution than any other region, whereas historically Europe and America were innovators of plastic. There are complicated questions of agency around both, which have often precluded the ascription of responsibility – with small amounts of pollution being discarded in an untraceable manner on a truly global scale. Lastly, and maybe the saddest of the truths that accompany cases of injustice are that those who have contributed least to the problem, will face its wrath with the most severity, particularly the small island states and poverty stricken coastal regions in the global south.
Both climate and plastic are symptomatic of the rampant consumerism that is now status quo across the planet. Americans alone are consuming approximately 50 billion bottles of water a year, which require 17 million barrels of oil to produce. The two issues are inextricably linked, however should we look to ‘bolt-on’ the battle to reduce aquatic plastic to the issue of climate change? This question proved polemic amongst discussants. If, as history suggests, we have a finite amount of political will in regards to the environment, and with tackling climate change being granted centre stage – does it risk the fight against plastics being overlooked? Personally, I am not sure of the extent to which including plastics within the climate debate will be beneficial to the cause. The ambitious (arguably unrealistic) INDCs outlined at Paris are task enough for the 189 represented countries, and to attempt to add plastic into the mix may be a bridge too far, in a movement that has been notoriously slow moving over the past three decades. Whilst to many the concept of climate change remains abstract, a tangibility exists in the plastic movements that must surely play to its advantage. Graphic images of sea birds whose stomachs are full of debris and ‘plastic islands’ in the ocean have the potential to engage with a wider public audience than that of climate, and its harm is undeniable – a movement which has hindered the mitigation of climate change to no ends.
By Callum Nolan, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar
- M. Lonnstedt, P. Eklov. Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology. Science, 2016; 352